Bucking bull owners spend months caring for and training their bovines but few of them ever reach the rodeo arena

bucking bull owners spend months caring for and training their bovines but few of them ever reach the rodeo arena

Young bulls are trained by competing with dummies on their backs.  (Supplied: Richard Irwin)

It may be surprising to hear a bucking bull described as a "big puppy dog" when you see a 1,000 kilogram beast dancing across an arena trying to get rid of the rider on its back.

It may look like the bull has been plucked from the wild and brought to a rodeo unaware of what's ahead.

But behind the scenes, in the months and years leading up to an event, the bull has been bred, cared for and trained "like a big pet" before charging out onto the big stage.

A hobby that became an obsession

Alex and Dean Tyson breed and train bucking bulls at their property in the historic New South Wales town of Gunning, about an hour north of Canberra.

What started as a small hobby on a bare block has turned into an obsession.

"We're very attached to them [the bulls], they're not that far down the rank from the kids," Ms Tyson said.

"I love just sitting out with them in the paddock: you figure out who's food motivated, who wants to be left alone, who likes their own company, the different social groups."

The husband-and-wife duo, with their twin children in tow, spend hours working alongside the huge beasts — with specific American bucking bull genetics — to prepare them for a possible future in the bull riding industry.

Mr Tyson said the work began once the bovines were weaned.

"Walking them through the yards, in and out of the chutes, not bucking them but just showing them 'this is how you walk through calmly'," Mr Tyson said.

"Then going out in the arena and leaving the arena nice and calmly, you do all of that before you buck them."

Ms Tyson said the bulls were put in different scenarios to educate them before they were left alone in a paddock.

"We're going to try and simulate what they're going to see in competition and where maybe they need a bit more work or build a bit more trust with us," Ms Tyson said.

"We'll put pressure on them in different ways and try and make it as familiar and as comfortable as they can be so when they go and compete it's a very safe space for them … nothing's a surprise."

Few bulls make it to the big stage

On average, the Tysons keep around 20 bulls like novice Jubba and Footloose, who competed in the futurity category.

The futurity category is a subset of a bull-riding event where young bulls have a 9 kilogram dummy on their back to simulate the feeling of a rider.

The dummy is released via remote control after four seconds, and the bull is given a score based on its performance.

The Tysons, like many contractors, use a dummy to train a young bull to reward it for early effort, and to avoid wear on its growing body.

But even after days, months and years of work, many bulls never made it to the stage where they can take a rider on their back.

Ms Tyson said only a select few had the temperament and athleticism to perform at the highest standard.

"You only get that athletic performance out of them when they are feeling comfortable," Ms Tyson said.

"Whenever they're in that fight or flight kind of space, they won't do what you want of them, they're not going to be competitive.

"They need to be able to think and feel safe to do what we need of them in an athletic capacity."

Those who don't make it to the big stage join the commercial beef chain, while others — including retired favourites — lived out their days in the family paddock.

A heavily scrutinised industry

Ms Tyson is a vet by trade and works with the professional bull riders to be on site if a bull needs medical attention.

She said it was a heavily scrutinised industry.

"[Animal abuse] wouldn't be tolerated," she said.

"It doesn't represent anyone well and it really undermines the amount of hours and investment — financial, time, energy, the whole shebang — [put] into it.

"If someone was there smearing that image, it's not going to get very far."

Rodeos — including bull-riding — have been banned in the ACT for more than 30 years.

The maximum penalty for someone who takes part in a rodeo in the ACT is a year in jail, but in the surrounding towns like Queanbeyan and Yass, bull-riding is still hugely popular.

RSPCA senior scientific officer Di Evans had worked in the animal welfare space for more than 20 years.

Despite state regulations and specific codes of practices in place, she said other jurisdictions should follow the ACT.

"If you look at bull-riding, the main issue is in relation to the inherent risks of pain, injury and distress and lot of this is really related to the application or tightening of that flank strap," Dr Evans said.

"The other issue is that there are injuries, including bruising, abrasions, muscle strain, as well as even bone fractures, and they're usually catastrophic, resulting in the euthanasia of these bulls.

"Once that bull has the tightened flank strap applied and leaves the chute, they just about go into a frenzy."

The signs of stress are clear to Dr Evans, who said it was unachievable for a bull to have a happy life in the industry.

"I don't doubt that people in the industry are very proud of their animals, but I would dispute that these bulls have a good life," she said.

"They're transported all over the place, and we know that there's a lot of stress just associated with being on trucks.

"The life that they have: they have to perform, it's day in and day out, year after year for substantial amounts of time."

'They're like big pets' 

The Tysons often take their bulls to Bucking Bulls Australia events founded in 2019 to create a platform for contractors to compete with their bulls from yearlings through to mature age.

Contractors can choose who rides their bulls at these events, to safeguard the animal's experience and provide a good match-up.

But it works both ways, as riders know what work has gone on behind the scenes to have the bulls ready, and quite literally, raring to go.

Bull-rider Jack Rowlandson is the president of the Oberon Rodeo Association and said education of the bulls was key.

"Rodeos are a highly scrutinised sport, so everyone looks after their animals, no one bashes them or anything like that," Mr Rowlandson said.

"They get looked after well, people make money with them, people look after them, they love them.

"They're exactly like a dog, if you look after them, it's nice to you, it's good back to you. If you're nasty to it, it'll be nasty back."

Oberon Rodeo Association vice-president Charlie Bailey had the same sentiment.

"They're like big puppy dogs really," Mr Bailey said.

"You look after them and feed them, then they buck pretty good for you. They're like big pets."

When the crowds go home, and the Tysons returned to their peaceful property, they have a little time to reflect on the whirlwind that is the bull-riding scene.

Ms Tyson said it was the community and the personalities of the bulls that kept them attracted to the industry.

"As a mother, it's really, really nice to go to those events," she said.

"You can take your grandma, you can take your kids, everyone can have a good day.

"You bring along some bulls, someone might hop on, you form another friendship. It's a great environment really."


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